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Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
The voice mail message is now infamous in Nevada political history.
On the night before the Democratic primary in the 2006 governor’s race, state Sen. Dina Titus left a message for one of her students, who was hanging out at the headquarters of her opponent.
Titus upbraided the young woman for disloyalty.
“I am not happy,” Titus said in the message, and it became a statewide punch line. The audio was leaked to Sun columnist Jon Ralston and later used to devastating effect by Titus’ Republican opponent, Gov. Jim Gibbons, in the closing days of the general election campaign.
For many Nevadans, it showed Titus to be petty and vindictive, and she lost.
But the story doesn’t end there. Heather Brown is now president of Nevada Young Democrats, and is rounding up volunteers in California to come east and work for Democrats here, including Titus, who is taking on Rep. Jon Porter in the Third Congressional District.
Brown said that after Titus’ 2006 November loss, they sat down together.
“It was my opportunity to tell her how much I admired her and how she was such a great example to anyone who could sit in her classroom,” Brown said. “I got to tell her how much she means to me.”
Titus didn’t blanch from a question about it. “Nobody ever asked me about that phone call,” she said ruefully. “It was a betrayal of trust. But you move on.”
Petty and vindictive is one way to hear the voice mail, but interviews with many of Titus’ students — spanning generations, ethnicities and political persuasions — reveal a different possible interpretation: Titus as a teacher of deep commitment and fierce loyalty who demands the same in return.
Mary Lou Foley, a public affairs consultant who went to UNLV as an adult student in the mid-’80s, said Titus was an inspiration. “She had an amazing way of turning a light on inside, and you’d say, ‘I never thought I could do this.’ ”
In fall 1986 Titus was Foley’s faculty adviser when Foley’s mother died. She went into a deep depression, and was then diagnosed as bipolar.
“Dina was a rock for me,” Foley said.
Sue Davis arrived as an aimless drifter who had all but flunked out of the University of Minnesota when she had Titus as an instructor: “I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Dina,” Davis said. She is a political scientist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
“She had great faith in me, and pushed me to go on and get my master’s and then my doctorate, and it was mostly because of her.”
Titus helped Davis overcome a fear of public speaking.
And Davis turned to Titus when she was struggling in a research methods class with another professor. “She looked at me very firmly and said, ‘Sue, you can do this. You are a smart woman. Don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do this.’ ”
Foley said Titus has a little known “nurturing, caring part of her personality. And I don’t know if that is ever transmitted politically.”
Indeed, her former students, some provided by the Titus campaign, others found independently by the Sun, provide an image of Titus that contrasts with her political persona, which is associated with partisan warfare and the quick, biting remark.
Titus arrived at UNLV in 1977 and makes $107,855, though she takes unpaid leave when campaigning full time, as she is this semester, or legislating, as she has every other spring since 1989.
She continues to research in her specialty — the history, politics and culture of atomic testing in Nevada — though she acknowledged her publishing has tapered off with her political engagement. She writes reviews for scholarly journals and recently presented a paper in Japan on compensation for victims of atomic holocaust.
In the classroom, she is a stern taskmaster.
Russell Rowe, now a successful attorney for Kummer Kaempfer Bonner Renshaw & Ferrario who sometimes lobbies Titus, recalled an incident as a student in her legislative process class. “I was chewing gum one time, and I must have been chewing loudly, because she asked me to leave.”
Rowe remembered his Titus classes fondly, however. “She knew the material and was rather effective,” he said, noting that her real-world experience made her a superior political scientist.
Titus, who won a university-wide teaching award in 1984, has always preferred class discussion to lecturing. She described the benefits of the ancient Socratic method: “No class goes by without some idea of a student provoking reflection and more thought.”
A politically accomplished student agreed. “There was a lot of give and take,” said state Sen. Warren Hardy, a Republican.
The list of influential and locally famous Titus students is long and colorful, including superlobbyist and adman Billy Vassiliadis, convicted former county commissioner Dario Herrera, former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins and NV Energy executive Tony Sanchez, who said Titus was a tough grader.
Titus, who comes from a family of educators, said she’s very careful about keeping a classroom that makes no attempt to indoctrinate ideology. Porter himself has been a guest speaker in her classroom. She proudly displays in her office gifts from students: A doll likeness of conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, as well as a Hillary Clinton “nutcracker” (you can imagine).
“It turned out to be one of my favorite classes,” said Hardy, who had Titus for a class on campaigns in 1988. Hardy was chairman of Nevada Young Republicans in those halcyon days of Ronald Reagan, but Titus was fair to him, he said. “She gave me equal time and an opportunity to fight back,” said Hardy, who’s a Porter supporter.
Brittany Walker, a conservative Republican who had Titus for a legislative process class in fall 2007, said the professor told the class Republicans had nothing to fear and should speak up.
But Walker said she remembered the infamous voice mail of the 2006 campaign and was afraid of Titus, so she said little all semester. Still, Walker said the class was valuable.
She would go on to become an intern in Porter’s office the following spring.
“I think the class really helped me prepare me for the internship. I’m not gonna lie, she taught the class and taught it well.”